Globular cluster

A globular cluster is a spherical collection of stars that orbit a galactic core, as a satellite. Globular clusters are very tightly bound by gravity, which gives them their spherical shapes, and relatively high stellar densities toward their centers. The name of this category of star cluster is derived from the Latin, globulus—a small sphere. A globular cluster is sometimes known, more simply, as a globular.

Globular clusters are found in the halo of a galaxy and contain considerably more stars, and are much older, than the less dense, open clusters which are found in the disk of a galaxy. Globular clusters are fairly common; there are about 150[2] to 158[3], currently known globular clusters in the Milky Way, with, perhaps, 10 to 20 more, still undiscovered.[4] Larger galaxies can have more: The Andromeda Galaxy, for instance, may have as many as 500.[5] Some giant elliptical galaxies (particularly those at the centers of galaxy clusters), such as M87,[6] have as many as 13,000 globular clusters.

Every galaxy of sufficient mass in the Local Group has an associated group of globular clusters, and almost every large galaxy surveyed, has been found to possess a system of globular clusters.[7] The Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy, and the disputed Canis Major Dwarf galaxy appear to be in the process of donating their associated globular clusters (such as Palomar 12) to the Milky Way.[8] This demonstrates how many of this galaxy's globular clusters might have been acquired in the past.

Although it appears that globular clusters contain some of the first stars to be produced in the galaxy, their origins and their role in galactic evolution are still unclear. It does appear clear that globular clusters are significantly different from dwarf elliptical galaxies and were formed as part of the star formation of the parent galaxy, rather than as a separate galaxy.[9]

A Swarm of Ancient Stars - GPN-2000-000930
The Messier 80 globular cluster in the constellation Scorpius is located about 30,000 light-years from the Sun and contains hundreds of thousands of stars.[1]

Observation history

Early globular cluster discoveries
Cluster name Discovered by Year
M22 Abraham Ihle 1665
ω Cen Edmond Halley 1677
M5 Gottfried Kirch 1702
M13 Edmond Halley 1714
M71 Philippe Loys de Chéseaux 1745
M4 Philippe Loys de Chéseaux 1746
M15 Jean-Dominique Maraldi 1746
M2 Jean-Dominique Maraldi 1746

The first known globular cluster, now called M22, was discovered in 1665 by Abraham Ihle, a German amateur astronomer.[10][11] However, given the small aperture of early telescopes, individual stars within a globular cluster were not resolved until Charles Messier observed M4 in 1764.[12][13] The first eight globular clusters discovered are shown in the table. Subsequently, Abbé Lacaille would list NGC 104, NGC 4833, M55, M69, and NGC 6397 in his 1751–52 catalogue. The M before a number refers to Charles Messier's catalogue, while NGC is from the New General Catalogue by John Dreyer.

When William Herschel began his comprehensive survey of the sky using large telescopes in 1782 there were 34 known globular clusters. Herschel discovered another 36 himself and was the first to resolve virtually all of them into stars. He coined the term "globular cluster" in his Catalogue of a Second Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars published in 1789.[14][15]

The number of globular clusters discovered continued to increase, reaching 83 in 1915, 93 in 1930 and 97 by 1947. A total of 152 globular clusters have now been discovered in the Milky Way galaxy, out of an estimated total of 180 ± 20.[4] These additional, undiscovered globular clusters are believed to be hidden behind the gas and dust of the Milky Way.

Beginning in 1914, Harlow Shapley began a series of studies of globular clusters, published in about 40 scientific papers. He examined the RR Lyrae variables in the clusters (which he assumed were Cepheid variables) and used their period–luminosity relationship for distance estimates. Later, it was found that RR Lyrae variables are fainter than Cepheid variables, which caused Shapley to overestimate the distances of the clusters.[16]

NGC 7006 HST
NGC 7006 is a highly concentrated, Class I globular cluster.

Of the globular clusters within the Milky Way, the majority are found in a halo around the galactic core, and the large majority are located in the celestial sky centered on the core. In 1918, this strongly asymmetrical distribution was used by Shapley to make a determination of the overall dimensions of the galaxy. By assuming a roughly spherical distribution of globular clusters around the galaxy's center, he used the positions of the clusters to estimate the position of the Sun relative to the galactic center.[17] While his distance estimate was in significant error (although within the same order of magnitude as the currently accepted value), it did demonstrate that the dimensions of the galaxy were much greater than had been previously thought. His error was due to interstellar dust in the Milky Way, which absorbs and diminishes the amount of light from distant objects, such as globular clusters, that reaches the Earth, thus making them appear to be more distant than they are.

Shapley's measurements also indicated that the Sun is relatively far from the center of the galaxy, also contrary to what had previously been inferred from the apparently nearly even distribution of ordinary stars. In reality, most ordinary stars lie within the galaxy's disk and those stars that lie in the direction of the galactic centre and beyond are thus obscured by gas and dust, whereas globular clusters lie outside the disk and can be seen at much further distances.


Shapley was subsequently assisted in his studies of clusters by Henrietta Swope and Helen Battles Sawyer (later Hogg). In 1927–29, Shapley and Sawyer categorized clusters according to the degree of concentration each system has toward its core. The most concentrated clusters were identified as Class I, with successively diminishing concentrations ranging to Class XII. This became known as the Shapley–Sawyer Concentration Class (it is sometimes given with numbers [Class 1–12] rather than Roman numerals.)[18] In 2015, a new type of globular cluster was proposed on the basis of observational data, the dark globular clusters.[19]


NGC 2808 HST
NGC 2808 contains three distinct generations of stars.[20] NASA image

The formation of globular clusters remains a poorly understood phenomenon and it remains uncertain whether the stars in a globular cluster form in a single generation or are spawned across multiple generations over a period of several hundred million years. In many globular clusters, most of the stars are at approximately the same stage in stellar evolution, suggesting that they formed at about the same time.[21] However, the star formation history varies from cluster to cluster, with some clusters showing distinct populations of stars. An example of this is the globular clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) that exhibit a bimodal population. During their youth, these LMC clusters may have encountered giant molecular clouds that triggered a second round of star formation.[22] This star-forming period is relatively brief, compared with the age of many globular clusters.[23] It has also been proposed that the reason for this multiplicity in stellar populations could have a dynamical origin. In the Antennae galaxy, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope has observed clusters of clusters, regions in the galaxy that span hundreds of parsecs, where many of the clusters will eventually collide and merge. Many of them present a significant range in ages, hence possibly metallicities, and their merger could plausibly lead to clusters with a bimodal or even multiple distribution of populations.[24]

The globular star cluster Messier 54
Globular star cluster Messier 54.[25]

Observations of globular clusters show that these stellar formations arise primarily in regions of efficient star formation, and where the interstellar medium is at a higher density than in normal star-forming regions. Globular cluster formation is prevalent in starburst regions and in interacting galaxies.[26] Research indicates a correlation between the mass of a central supermassive black holes (SMBH) and the extent of the globular cluster systems of elliptical and lenticular galaxies. The mass of the SMBH in such a galaxy is often close to the combined mass of the galaxy's globular clusters.[27]

No known globular clusters display active star formation, which is consistent with the view that globular clusters are typically the oldest objects in the Galaxy, and were among the first collections of stars to form. Very large regions of star formation known as super star clusters, such as Westerlund 1 in the Milky Way, may be the precursors of globular clusters.[28]


Djorgovski 1
Djorgovski 1's stars contain hydrogen and helium, but not much else. In astronomical terms, they are described as "metal-poor".[29]

Globular clusters are generally composed of hundreds of thousands of low-metal, old stars. The type of stars found in a globular cluster are similar to those in the bulge of a spiral galaxy but confined to a volume of only a few million cubic parsecs. They are free of gas and dust and it is presumed that all of the gas and dust was long ago turned into stars.

Globular clusters can contain a high density of stars; on average about 0.4 stars per cubic parsec, increasing to 100 or 1000 stars per cubic parsec in the core of the cluster.[30] The typical distance between stars in a globular cluster is about 1 light year,[31] but at its core, the separation is comparable to the size of the Solar System (100 to 1000 times closer than stars near the Solar System).[32]

Globular clusters are not thought to be favorable locations for the survival of planetary systems. Planetary orbits are dynamically unstable within the cores of dense clusters because of the perturbations of passing stars. A planet orbiting at 1 astronomical unit around a star that is within the core of a dense cluster such as 47 Tucanae would only survive on the order of 108 years.[33] There is a planetary system orbiting a pulsar (PSR B1620−26) that belongs to the globular cluster M4, but these planets likely formed after the event that created the pulsar.[34]

Some globular clusters, like Omega Centauri in the Milky Way and G1 in M31, are extraordinarily massive, with several million solar masses (M) and multiple stellar populations. Both can be regarded as evidence that supermassive globular clusters are in fact the cores of dwarf galaxies that are consumed by the larger galaxies.[35] About a quarter of the globular cluster population in the Milky Way may have been accreted along with their host dwarf galaxy.[36]

Several globular clusters (like M15) have extremely massive cores which may harbor black holes,[37] although simulations suggest that a less massive black hole or central concentration of neutron stars or massive white dwarfs explain observations equally well.

Metallic content

Messier 53 HST
Messier 53 contains an unusual number of a type of star called blue stragglers.[38]

Globular clusters normally consist of Population II stars, which have a low proportion of elements other than hydrogen and helium when compared with Population I stars such as the Sun. Astronomers refer to these heavier elements as metals and to the proportions of these elements as the metallicity. These elements are produced by stellar nucleosynthesis and then are recycled into the interstellar medium, where they enter the next generation of stars. Hence the proportion of metals can be an indication of the age of a star, with older stars typically having a lower metallicity.[39]

The Dutch astronomer Pieter Oosterhoff noticed that there appear to be two populations of globular clusters, which became known as Oosterhoff groups. The second group has a slightly longer period of RR Lyrae variable stars.[40] Both groups have weak lines of metallic elements. But the lines in the stars of Oosterhoff type I (OoI) cluster are not quite as weak as those in type II (OoII).[40] Hence type I are referred to as "metal-rich" (for example, Terzan 7[41]), while type II are "metal-poor" (for example, ESO 280-SC06[42]).

These two populations have been observed in many galaxies, especially massive elliptical galaxies. Both groups are nearly as old as the universe itself and are of similar ages, but differ in their metal abundances. Many scenarios have been suggested to explain these subpopulations, including violent gas-rich galaxy mergers, the accretion of dwarf galaxies, and multiple phases of star formation in a single galaxy. In the Milky Way, the metal-poor clusters are associated with the halo and the metal-rich clusters with the bulge.[43]

In the Milky Way it has been discovered that the large majority of the low metallicity clusters are aligned along a plane in the outer part of the galaxy's halo. This result argues in favor of the view that type II clusters in the galaxy were captured from a satellite galaxy, rather than being the oldest members of the Milky Way's globular cluster system as had been previously thought. The difference between the two cluster types would then be explained by a time delay between when the two galaxies formed their cluster systems.[44]

Exotic components

Globular clusters have a very high star density, and therefore close interactions and near-collisions of stars occur relatively often. Due to these chance encounters, some exotic classes of stars, such as blue stragglers, millisecond pulsars and low-mass X-ray binaries, are much more common in globular clusters. A blue straggler is formed from the merger of two stars, possibly as a result of an encounter with a binary system.[45] The resulting star has a higher temperature than comparable stars in the cluster with the same luminosity, and thus differs from the main sequence stars formed at the beginning of the cluster.[46]

Globular cluster M15 may have an intermediate-mass black hole at its core. NASA image.

Astronomers have searched for black holes within globular clusters since the 1970s. The resolution requirements for this task, however, are exacting, and it is only with the Hubble space telescope that the first confirmed discoveries have been made. In independent programs, a 4,000 M intermediate-mass black hole has been suggested to exist based on HST observations in the globular cluster M15 and a 20,000 M black hole in the Mayall II cluster in the Andromeda Galaxy.[47] Both x-ray and radio emissions from Mayall II appear to be consistent with an intermediate-mass black hole.[48]

They are the first black holes discovered that were intermediate in mass between the conventional stellar-mass black hole and the supermassive black holes discovered at the cores of galaxies. The mass of these intermediate mass black holes is proportional to the mass of the clusters, following a pattern previously discovered between supermassive black holes and their surrounding galaxies.

Claims of intermediate mass black holes have been met with some skepticism. The heaviest objects in globular clusters are expected to migrate to the cluster center due to mass segregation. As pointed out in two papers by Holger Baumgardt and collaborators, the mass-to-light ratio should rise sharply towards the center of the cluster, even without a black hole, in both M15[49] and Mayall II.[50]

Color-magnitude diagram

Cosmic fairy lights
Messier 5 is a globular cluster consisting of hundreds of thousands of stars bound together by their collective gravity.[51]

The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (HR-diagram) is a graph of a large sample of stars that plots their visual absolute magnitude against their color index. The color index, B−V, is the difference between the magnitude of the star in blue light, or B, and the magnitude in visual light (green-yellow), or V. Large positive values indicate a red star with a cool surface temperature, while negative values imply a blue star with a hotter surface.

When the stars near the Sun are plotted on an HR diagram, it displays a distribution of stars of various masses, ages, and compositions. Many of the stars lie relatively close to a sloping curve with increasing absolute magnitude as the stars are hotter, known as main-sequence stars. However the diagram also typically includes stars that are in later stages of their evolution and have wandered away from this main-sequence curve.

As all the stars of a globular cluster are at approximately the same distance from the Earth, their absolute magnitudes differ from their visual magnitude by about the same amount. The main-sequence stars in the globular cluster will fall along a line that is believed to be comparable to similar stars in the solar neighborhood. The accuracy of this assumption is confirmed by comparable results obtained by comparing the magnitudes of nearby short-period variables, such as RR Lyrae stars and cepheid variables, with those in the cluster.[52]

By matching up these curves on the HR diagram the absolute magnitude of main-sequence stars in the cluster can also be determined. This in turn provides a distance estimate to the cluster, based on the visual magnitude of the stars. The difference between the relative and absolute magnitude, the distance modulus, yields this estimate of the distance.[53]

When the stars of a particular globular cluster are plotted on an HR diagram, in many cases nearly all of the stars fall upon a relatively well-defined curve. This differs from the HR diagram of stars near the Sun, which lumps together stars of differing ages and origins. The shape of the curve for a globular cluster is characteristic of a grouping of stars that were formed at approximately the same time and from the same materials, differing only in their initial mass. As the position of each star in the HR diagram varies with age, the shape of the curve for a globular cluster can be used to measure the overall age of the star population.[54]

However, the above-mentioned historic process of determining the age and distance to globular clusters is not as robust as first thought, since the morphology and luminosity of globular cluster stars in color-magnitude diagrams are influenced by numerous parameters, many of which are still being actively researched. Certain clusters even display populations that are absent from other globular clusters (e.g., blue hook stars), or feature multiple populations. The historical paradigm that all globular clusters consist of stars born at exactly the same time, or sharing exactly the same chemical abundance, has likewise been overturned (e.g., NGC 2808).[55] Further, the morphology of the cluster stars in a color-magnitude diagram, and that includes the brightnesses of distance indicators such as RR Lyrae variable members, can be influenced by observational biases. One such effect is called blending, and it arises because the cores of globular clusters are so dense that in low-resolution observations multiple (unresolved) stars may appear as a single target. Thus the brightness measured for that seemingly single star (e.g., an RR Lyrae variable) is erroneously too bright, given those unresolved stars contributed to the brightness determined.[56][57] Consequently, the computed distance is wrong, and more importantly, certain researchers have argued that the blending effect can introduce a systematic uncertainty into the cosmic distance ladder, and may bias the estimated age of the Universe and the Hubble constant.

M3 color magnitude diagram
Color-magnitude diagram for the globular cluster M3. Note the characteristic "knee" in the curve at magnitude 19 where stars begin entering the giant stage of their evolutionary path.

The most massive main-sequence stars will also have the highest absolute magnitude, and these will be the first to evolve into the giant star stage. As the cluster ages, stars of successively lower masses will also enter the giant star stage. Thus the age of a single population cluster can be measured by looking for the stars that are just beginning to enter the giant star stage. This forms a "knee" in the HR diagram, bending to the upper right from the main-sequence line. The absolute magnitude at this bend is directly a function of the age of globular cluster, so an age scale can be plotted on an axis parallel to the magnitude.

In addition, globular clusters can be dated by looking at the temperatures of the coolest white dwarfs. Typical results for globular clusters are that they may be as old as 12.7 billion years.[58] This is in contrast to open clusters which are only tens of millions of years old.

The ages of globular clusters place a bound on the age limit of the entire universe. This lower limit has been a significant constraint in cosmology. Historically, astronomers were faced with age estimates of globular clusters that appeared older than cosmological models would allow. However, better measurements of cosmological parameters through deep sky surveys and satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope appear to have resolved this issue.[59]

Evolutionary studies of globular clusters can also be used to determine changes due to the starting composition of the gas and dust that formed the cluster. That is, the evolutionary tracks change with changes in the abundance of heavy elements. The data obtained from studies of globular clusters are then used to study the evolution of the Milky Way as a whole.[60]

In globular clusters a few stars known as blue stragglers are observed, apparently continuing the main sequence in the direction of brighter, bluer stars. The origins of these stars is still unclear, but most models suggest that these stars are the result of mass transfer in multiple star systems.[45]


Appearances can be deceptive
NGC 411 is classified as an open cluster.[61]

In contrast to open clusters, most globular clusters remain gravitationally bound for time periods comparable to the life spans of the majority of their stars. However, a possible exception is when strong tidal interactions with other large masses result in the dispersal of the stars.

After they are formed, the stars in the globular cluster begin to interact gravitationally with each other. As a result, the velocity vectors of the stars are steadily modified, and the stars lose any history of their original velocity. The characteristic interval for this to occur is the relaxation time. This is related to the characteristic length of time a star needs to cross the cluster as well as the number of stellar masses in the system.[62] The value of the relaxation time varies by cluster, but the mean value is on the order of 109 years.

Ellipticity of globular clusters
Galaxy Ellipticity[63]
Milky Way 0.07±0.04
LMC 0.16±0.05
SMC 0.19±0.06
M31 0.09±0.04

Although globular clusters generally appear spherical in form, ellipticities can occur due to tidal interactions. Clusters within the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are typically oblate spheroids in shape, while those in the Large Magellanic Cloud are more elliptical.[64]


Astronomers characterize the morphology of a globular cluster by means of standard radii. These are the core radius (rc), the half-light radius (rh), and the tidal (or Jacobi) radius (rt). The overall luminosity of the cluster steadily decreases with distance from the core, and the core radius is the distance at which the apparent surface luminosity has dropped by half.[65] A comparable quantity is the half-light radius, or the distance from the core within which half the total luminosity from the cluster is received. This is typically larger than the core radius.

The half-light radius includes stars in the outer part of the cluster that happen to lie along the line of sight, so theorists will also use the half-mass radius (rm)—the radius from the core that contains half the total mass of the cluster. When the half-mass radius of a cluster is small relative to the overall size, it has a dense core. An example of this is Messier 3 (M3), which has an overall visible dimension of about 18 arc minutes, but a half-mass radius of only 1.12 arc minutes.[66]

Almost all globular clusters have a half-light radius of less than 10 pc, although there are well-established globular clusters with very large radii (i.e. NGC 2419 (Rh = 18 pc) and Palomar 14 (Rh = 25 pc)).[67]

Finally the tidal radius, or Hill sphere, is the distance from the center of the globular cluster at which the external gravitation of the galaxy has more influence over the stars in the cluster than does the cluster itself. This is the distance at which the individual stars belonging to a cluster can be separated away by the galaxy. The tidal radius of M3 is about 40 arc minutes,[68] or about 113 pc[69] at the distance of 10.4 kpc.

Mass segregation, luminosity and core collapse

In measuring the luminosity curve of a given globular cluster as a function of distance from the core, most clusters in the Milky Way increase steadily in luminosity as this distance decreases, up to a certain distance from the core, then the luminosity levels off. Typically this distance is about 1–2 parsecs from the core. However about 20% of the globular clusters have undergone a process termed "core collapse". In this type of cluster, the luminosity continues to increase steadily all the way to the core region.[70] An example of a core-collapsed globular is M15.

47 Tucanae – the second most luminous globular cluster in the Milky Way, after Omega Centauri.

Core-collapse is thought to occur when the more massive stars in a globular cluster encounter their less massive companions. Over time, dynamic processes cause individual stars to migrate from the center of the cluster to the outside. This results in a net loss of kinetic energy from the core region, leading the remaining stars grouped in the core region to occupy a more compact volume. When this gravothermal instability occurs, the central region of the cluster becomes densely crowded with stars and the surface brightness of the cluster forms a power-law cusp.[71] (Note that a core collapse is not the only mechanism that can cause such a luminosity distribution; a massive black hole at the core can also result in a luminosity cusp.)[72] Over a lengthy period of time this leads to a concentration of massive stars near the core, a phenomenon called mass segregation.

The dynamical heating effect of binary star systems works to prevent an initial core collapse of the cluster. When a star passes near a binary system, the orbit of the latter pair tends to contract, releasing energy. Only after the primordial supply of binaries is exhausted due to interactions can a deeper core collapse proceed.[73][74] In contrast, the effect of tidal shocks as a globular cluster repeatedly passes through the plane of a spiral galaxy tends to significantly accelerate core collapse.[75]

The different stages of core-collapse may be divided into three phases. During a globular cluster's adolescence, the process of core-collapse begins with stars near the core. However, the interactions between binary star systems prevents further collapse as the cluster approaches middle age. Finally, the central binaries are either disrupted or ejected, resulting in a tighter concentration at the core.

The interaction of stars in the collapsed core region causes tight binary systems to form. As other stars interact with these tight binaries, they increase the energy at the core, which causes the cluster to re-expand. As the mean time for a core collapse is typically less than the age of the galaxy, many of a galaxy's globular clusters may have passed through a core collapse stage, then re-expanded.[76]

The stars of the Large Magellanic Cloud
Globular cluster NGC 1854 is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud.[77]

The Hubble Space Telescope has been used to provide convincing observational evidence of this stellar mass-sorting process in globular clusters. Heavier stars slow down and crowd at the cluster's core, while lighter stars pick up speed and tend to spend more time at the cluster's periphery. The globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, which is made up of about 1 million stars, is one of the densest globular clusters in the Southern Hemisphere. This cluster was subjected to an intensive photographic survey, which allowed astronomers to track the motion of its stars. Precise velocities were obtained for nearly 15,000 stars in this cluster.[78]

A 2008 study by John Fregeau of 13 globular clusters in the Milky Way shows that three of them have an unusually large number of X-ray sources, or X-ray binaries, suggesting the clusters are middle-aged. Previously, these globular clusters had been classified as being in old age because they had very tight concentrations of stars in their centers, another test of age used by astronomers. The implication is that most globular clusters, including the other ten studied by Fregeau, are not in middle age as previously thought, but are actually in 'adolescence'.[79]

The overall luminosities of the globular clusters within the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy can be modeled by means of a gaussian curve. This gaussian can be represented by means of an average magnitude Mv and a variance σ2. This distribution of globular cluster luminosities is called the Globular Cluster Luminosity Function (GCLF). (For the Milky Way, Mv = −7.20 ± 0.13, σ = 1.1 ± 0.1 magnitudes.)[80] The GCLF has also been used as a "standard candle" for measuring the distance to other galaxies, under the assumption that the globular clusters in remote galaxies follow the same principles as they do in the Milky Way.

N-body simulations

Computing the interactions between the stars within a globular cluster requires solving what is termed the N-body problem. That is, each of the stars within the cluster continually interacts with the other N−1 stars, where N is the total number of stars in the cluster. The naive CPU computational "cost" for a dynamic simulation increases in proportion to N 2 (each of N objects must interact pairwise with each of the other N objects), so the potential computing requirements to accurately simulate such a cluster can be enormous.[81] An efficient method of mathematically simulating the N-body dynamics of a globular cluster is done by subdividing into small volumes and velocity ranges, and using probabilities to describe the locations of the stars. The motions are then described by means of a formula called the Fokker–Planck equation. This can be solved by a simplified form of the equation, or by running Monte Carlo simulations and using random values. However the simulation becomes more difficult when the effects of binaries and the interaction with external gravitation forces (such as from the Milky Way galaxy) must also be included.[82]

The results of N-body simulations have shown that the stars can follow unusual paths through the cluster, often forming loops and often falling more directly toward the core than would a single star orbiting a central mass. In addition, due to interactions with other stars that result in an increase in velocity, some of the stars gain sufficient energy to escape the cluster. Over long periods of time this will result in a dissipation of the cluster, a process termed evaporation.[83] The typical time scale for the evaporation of a globular cluster is 1010 years.[62] In 2010 it became possible to directly compute, star by star, N-body simulations of a globular cluster over the course of its lifetime.[84]

Binary stars form a significant portion of the total population of stellar systems, with up to half of all stars occurring in binary systems. Numerical simulations of globular clusters have demonstrated that binaries can hinder and even reverse the process of core collapse in globular clusters. When a star in a cluster has a gravitational encounter with a binary system, a possible result is that the binary becomes more tightly bound and kinetic energy is added to the solitary star. When the massive stars in the cluster are sped up by this process, it reduces the contraction at the core and limits core collapse.[46]

The ultimate fate of a globular cluster must be either to accrete stars at its core, causing its steady contraction,[85] or gradual shedding of stars from its outer layers.[86]

Intermediate forms

Globular Cluster M10
Messier 10 lies about 15,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Ophiuchus.[87]

The distinction between cluster types is not always clear-cut, and objects have been found that blur the lines between the categories. For example, BH 176 in the southern part of the Milky Way has properties of both an open and a globular cluster.[88]

In 2005, astronomers discovered a completely new type of star cluster in the Andromeda Galaxy, which is, in several ways, very similar to globular clusters. The new-found clusters contain hundreds of thousands of stars, a similar number to that found in globular clusters. The clusters share other characteristics with globular clusters such as stellar populations and metallicity. What distinguishes them from the globular clusters is that they are much larger – several hundred light-years across – and hundreds of times less dense. The distances between the stars are, therefore, much greater within the newly discovered extended clusters. Parametrically, these clusters lie somewhere between a globular cluster and a dwarf spheroidal galaxy.[89]

How these clusters are formed is not yet known, but their formation might well be related to that of globular clusters. Why M31 has such clusters, while the Milky Way does not, is not yet known. It is also unknown if any other galaxy contains these types of clusters, but it would be very unlikely that M31 is the sole galaxy with extended clusters.[89]

Tidal encounters

When a globular cluster has a close encounter with a large mass, such as the core region of a galaxy, it undergoes a tidal interaction. The difference in the pull of gravity between the part of the cluster nearest the mass and the pull on the furthest part of the cluster results in a tidal force. A "tidal shock" occurs whenever the orbit of a cluster takes it through the plane of a galaxy.

As a result of a tidal shock, streams of stars can be pulled away from the cluster halo, leaving only the core part of the cluster. These tidal interaction effects create tails of stars that can extend up to several degrees of arc away from the cluster.[90] These tails typically both precede and follow the cluster along its orbit. The tails can accumulate significant portions of the original mass of the cluster, and can form clumplike features.[91]

The globular cluster Palomar 5, for example, is near the apogalactic point of its orbit after passing through the Milky Way. Streams of stars extend outward toward the front and rear of the orbital path of this cluster, stretching out to distances of 13,000 light-years.[92] Tidal interactions have stripped away much of the mass from Palomar 5, and further interactions as it passes through the galactic core are expected to transform it into a long stream of stars orbiting the Milky Way halo.

Tidal interactions add kinetic energy into a globular cluster, dramatically increasing the evaporation rate and shrinking the size of the cluster.[62] Not only does tidal shock strip off the outer stars from a globular cluster, but the increased evaporation accelerates the process of core collapse. The same physical mechanism may be at work in dwarf spheroidal galaxies such as the Sagittarius Dwarf, which appears to be undergoing tidal disruption due to its proximity to the Milky Way.


There are many globular clusters with a retrograde orbit round the Milky Way Galaxy.[93] A hypervelocity globular cluster was discovered around Messier 87 in 2014, having a velocity in excess of the escape velocity of M87.[94]


Astronomers are searching for exoplanets of stars in globular star clusters.[95]

In 2000, the results of a search for giant planets in the globular cluster 47 Tucanae were announced. The lack of any successful discoveries suggests that the abundance of elements (other than hydrogen or helium) necessary to build these planets may need to be at least 40% of the abundance in the Sun. Terrestrial planets are built from heavier elements such as silicon, iron and magnesium. The very low abundance of these elements in globular clusters means that the member stars have a far lower likelihood of hosting Earth-mass planets, when compared with stars in the neighborhood of the Sun. Hence the halo region of the Milky Way galaxy, including globular cluster members, are unlikely to host habitable terrestrial planets.[96]

In spite of the lower likelihood of giant planet formation, just such an object has been found in the globular cluster Messier 4. This planet was detected orbiting a pulsar in the binary star system PSR B1620-26. The eccentric and highly inclined orbit of the planet suggests it may have been formed around another star in the cluster, then was later "exchanged" into its current arrangement.[97] The likelihood of close encounters between stars in a globular cluster can disrupt planetary systems, some of which break loose to become free floating planets. Even close orbiting planets can become disrupted, potentially leading to orbital decay and an increase in orbital eccentricity and tidal effects.[98]

See also


  1. ^ The Hubble Heritage team (1999-07-01). "Hubble Images a Swarm of Ancient Stars". HubbleSite News Desk. Space Telescope Science Institute. Retrieved 2006-05-26.
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General resources

  • NASA Astrophysics Data System has a collection of past articles, from all major astrophysics journals and many conference proceedings.
  • SCYON is a newsletter dedicated to star clusters.
  • MODEST is a loose collaboration of scientists working on star clusters.


  • Binney, James; Tremaine, Scott (1987). Galactic Dynamics (First ed.). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08444-0.
  • Heggie, Douglas; Hut, Piet (2003). The Gravitational Million-Body Problem: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Star Cluster Dynamics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77486-1.
  • Spitzer, Lyman (1987). Dynamical Evolution of Globular Clusters. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08460-2.

Review articles

  • Elson, Rebecca; Hut, Piet; Inagaki, Shogo (1987). Dynamical evolution of globular clusters. Annual review of astronomy and astrophysics 25 565. Bibcode1987ARA&A..25..565E
  • Meylan, G.; Heggie, D. C. (1997). Internal dynamics of globular clusters. The Astronomy and Astrophysics Review 8 1. Bibcode1997A&ARv...8....1M

External links

47 Tucanae

47 Tucanae, 47 Tuc (or NGC 104) is a globular cluster located in the constellation Tucana. It is about 4.0 ± 0.35 kpc (13,000 ± 1,100 ly) away from Earth, and 120 light years across. 47 Tuc can be seen with the naked eye, with an apparent magnitude of 4.1. It appears about 50 arcminutes across. Due to its far southern location, 18° from the south celestial pole, it was not catalogued by European astronomers until the 1750s, when the cluster was first identified by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille from South Africa.

47 Tucanae is the second brightest globular cluster after Omega Centauri, and telescopically reveals about ten thousand stars, many appearing within a small dense central core. The cluster may contain an intermediate-mass black hole.

Messier 107

Messier 107 or M107, also known as NGC 6171, is a very loose globular cluster in the constellation Ophiuchus, and is the last globular cluster in the Messier Catalogue. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in April 1782, then independently by William Herschel in 1793. Herschel described it as a "globular cluster of stars, large, very rich, very much compressed, round, well resolved, clearly consisting of stars". It was not until 1947 that Helen Sawyer Hogg added it and three other objects discovered by Méchain to the list of Messier objects. The cluster is located 2.5° south and slightly west of the star Zeta Ophiuchi.M107 is close to the galactic plane at a distance of about 20,900 light-years from Earth and 9.8 kly (3.0 kpc) from the Galactic Center. The orbit of this cluster carries it through the galaxy between 9.2–12.4 kly (2.82–3.79 kpc) from the Galactic Center, with the perigalactic distance laying within the galactic bar region. It is an Oosterhoff type I cluster with a metallicity of –0.95 and is considered part of the halo population. There are 22 known RR Lyrae variable stars in this cluster and a probable SX Phoenicis variable.

Messier 13

Messier 13 or M13, also designated NGC 6205 and sometimes called the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules or the Hercules Globular Cluster, is a globular cluster of several hundred thousand stars in the constellation of Hercules.

Messier 15

Messier 15 or M15 (also designated NGC 7078) is a globular cluster in the constellation Pegasus. It was discovered by Jean-Dominique Maraldi in 1746 and included in Charles Messier's catalogue of comet-like objects in 1764. At an estimated 12.0 billion years old, it is one of the oldest known globular clusters.

Messier 2

Messier 2 or M2 (also designated NGC 7089) is a globular cluster in the constellation Aquarius, five degrees north of the star Beta Aquarii. It was discovered by Jean-Dominique Maraldi in 1746, and is one of the largest known globular clusters.

Messier 3

Messier 3 (M3 or NGC 5272) is a globular cluster of stars in the northern constellation of Canes Venatici. It was discovered on May 3, 1764, and was the first Messier object to be discovered by Charles Messier himself. Messier originally mistook the object for a nebula without stars. This mistake was corrected after the stars were resolved by William Herschel around 1784. Since then, it has become one of the best-studied globular clusters. Identification of the cluster's unusually large variable star population was begun in 1913 by American astronomer Solon Irving Bailey and new variable members continue to be identified up through 2004.Many amateur astronomers consider it one of the finest northern globular clusters, following only Messier 13. M3 has an apparent magnitude of 6.2, making it a difficult naked eye target even with dark conditions. With a moderate-sized telescope, the cluster is fully defined. It can be a challenge to locate through the technique of star hopping, but can be found by looking almost exactly halfway along an imaginary line connecting the bright star Arcturus to Cor Caroli. Using a telescope with a 25 cm (9.8 in) aperture, the cluster has a bright core with a diameter of about 6 arcminutes and spans a total of 12 arcminutes.This cluster is one of the largest and brightest, and is made up of around 500,000 stars. It is estimated to be 8 billion years old. It is located at a distance of about 33,900 light-years away from Earth.Messier 3 is located 31.6 kly (9.7 kpc) above the Galactic plane and roughly 38.8 kly (11.9 kpc) from the center of the Milky Way. It contains 274 known variable stars; by far the highest number found in any globular cluster. These include 133 RR Lyrae variables, of which about a third display the Blazhko effect of long-period modulation. The overall abundance of elements other than hydrogen and helium, what astronomers term the metallicity, is in the range of –1.34 to –1.50 dex. This value gives the logarithm of the abundance relative to the Sun; the actual proportion is 3.2–4.6% of the solar abundance. Messier 3 is the prototype for the Oosterhoff type I cluster, which is considered "metal-rich". That is, for a globular cluster, Messier 3 has a relatively high abundance of heavier elements.

Messier 4

Messier 4 or M4 (also designated NGC 6121) is a globular cluster in the constellation of Scorpius. It was discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745 and catalogued by Charles Messier in 1764. It was the first globular cluster in which individual stars were resolved.

Messier 5

Messier 5 or M5 (also designated NGC 5904) is a globular cluster in the constellation Serpens. It was discovered by Gottfried Kirch in 1702.

Messier 53

Messier 53 (also known as M53 or NGC 5024) is a globular cluster in the Coma Berenices constellation. It was discovered by Johann Elert Bode in 1775. M53 is one of the more outlying globular clusters, being about 60,000 light-years (18.4 kpc) light-years away from the Galactic Center, and almost the same distance (about 58,000 light-years (17.9 kpc)) from the Solar system. The cluster has a core radius (rc) of 2.18 pc, a half-light radius (rh) of 5.84 pc, and a tidal radius (rtr) of 239.9 pc.This is considered a metal-poor cluster and at one time was thought to be the most metal-poor cluster in the Milky Way. Abundance measurements of cluster members on the red giant branch show that most are first-generation stars. That is, they did not form from gas recycled from previous generations of stars. This differs from the majority of globular clusters that are more dominated by second generation stars. The second generation stars in NGC 5024 tend to be more concentrated in the core region. Overall, the stellar composition of cluster members is similar to members of the Milky Way halo.The cluster displays various tidal-like features including clumps and ripples around the cluster, and tails along the cluster's orbit in an east-west direction. A tidal bridge-like structure appears to connect M53 with the close, very diffuse neighbor NGC 5053, as well as an envelope surrounding both clusters. These may indicate a dynamic tidal interaction has occurred between the two clusters; a possibly unique occurrence within the Milky Way since there are no known binary clusters within the galaxy. In addition, M53 is a candidate member of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy tidal stream.Among the variable star population in the cluster, there are 55 known to be RR Lyrae variables. Of these, a majority of 34 display behavior typical of the Blazhko effect, including 23 of type RRc – the largest known population of the latter in any globular cluster. There are also at least three variables of type SX Phe and a semi-regular red giant.

Messier 54

Messier 54 (also known as M54 or NGC 6715) is a globular cluster in the constellation Sagittarius. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1778 and subsequently included in his catalog of comet-like objects.

M54 is easily found in the sky, being close to the star ζ Sagittarii. It is, however, not resolvable into individual stars even with larger amateur telescopes.

Messier 55

Messier 55 (also known as M55 or NGC 6809) is a globular cluster in the constellation Sagittarius. It was discovered by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in June 16, 1752 while observing from what today is South Africa. Starting in 1754, Charles Messier made several attempts to find this object from Paris, France, but the low declination meant it never rose sufficiently far above the horizon to allow for easy observation. He finally observed and catalogued it in 1778. The cluster can be seen with a pair of 50 mm binoculars, although resolving the individual stars requires a medium-sized telescope.M55 is at a distance of about 17,600 light-years away from Earth. It has a mass of about 269,000 times that of the Sun. As with other Milky Way globular clusters, it has a low abundance of elements other than hydrogen and helium compared to the Sun—what astronomers term the metallicity of the cluster. This quantity is normally listed as the base–10 logarithm of the proportion relative to the Sun; for NGC 6809 the metallicity is given by: [Fe/H] = –1.94 dex. Taking this exponent to the powers of 10 yields an abundance equal to 1.1% of the proportion of such elements in the Sun.

Only about 55 variable stars have been discovered in the central part of M55.

Messier 56

Messier 56 (also known as M56 or NGC 6779) is a globular cluster in the constellation Lyra. It was discovered by Charles Messier on January 19, 1779. The cluster is located almost midway along an imaginary line between Albireo (β Cygni) and Sulafat (γ Lyrae). It is a challenge to find with large (50–80 mm) binoculars, appearing as a slightly fuzzy star. The cluster can be resolved using a telescope with an aperture of 8 in (20 cm) or larger.M56 is at a distance of about 32,900 light-years from Earth and measures roughly 84 light-years across, with a combined mass some 230,000 times that of the Sun. It is about 31–32 kly (9.5–9.8 kpc) from the Galactic Center and 4.8 kly (1.5 kpc) above the galactic plane. This cluster has an estimated age of 13.70 billion years and is following a retrograde orbit through the Milky Way. The properties of this cluster suggest that it may have been acquired during the merger of a dwarf galaxy, of which Omega Centauri forms the surviving nucleus. For Messier 56, the abundance of elements other than hydrogen and helium, what astronomers term the metallicity, has a very low value of [Fe/H] = –2.00 dex. This is equivalent to 1% of the abundance in the Sun.The brightest stars in M56 are of 13th magnitude, while it contains only about a dozen known variable stars, such as V6 (RV Tauri star; period: 90 days) or V1 (Cepheid: 1.510 days); other variable stars are V2 (irregular) and V3 (semiregular). In 2000, a diffuse X-ray emission was tentatively identified coming from the vicinity of the cluster. This is most likely interstellar medium that has been heated by the passage of the cluster through the galactic halo. The relative velocity of the cluster is about 177 km s−1, which is sufficient to heat the medium in its wake to a temperature of 940,000 K.M56 is part of the Gaia Sausage, the hypothesised remains of a merged dwarf galaxy.

Messier 68

Messier 68 (also known as M68 or NGC 4590) is a globular cluster in the equatorial constellation Hydra. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1780. William Herschel described it as "a beautiful cluster of stars, extremely rich, and so compressed that most of the stars are blended together". His son John noted that it was "all clearly resolved into stars of 12th magnitude, very loose and ragged at the borders".

M68 is at a distance of about 33,000 light-years away from Earth and is orbiting through the Milky Way with a large eccentricity of 0.5. This orbit carries it as far as 100,000 light years from the galactic center. It is one of the most metal-poor globular clusters, which means it has a paucity of elements other than hydrogen and helium. The cluster may be undergoing core-collapse, and it displays signs of being in rotation. The cluster may have been acquired by the Milky Way galaxy through accretion from a satellite galaxy.All told, as of 2015 a total of 50 variable stars have been identified in this cluster; the first 28 being identified as early as 1919–1920 by American astronomer Harlow Shapley. Most of the variables are of type RR Lyrae, or periodic variables. Six of the variables are of the SX Phoenicis variety, which display short pulsating behavior.

Messier 69

Messier 69 or M69, also known NGC 6637, is a globular cluster in the southern constellation of Sagittarius. It can be found 2.5° to the northeast of the star Epsilon Sagittarii and is dimly visible in 50 mm aperture binoculars. The cluster was discovered by Charles Messier on August 31, 1780, the same night he discovered M70. At the time, he was searching for an object described by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille in 1751–2 and thought he had rediscovered it, but it is unclear if Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille actually described M69.This cluster is at a distance of about 28,700 light-years away from Earth and 5,200 ly from the Galactic Center, with a spatial radius of 45 light-years. It is a relatively metal-rich globular cluster that is a likely member of the Galactic bulge population. M69 has a mass of 2.0×105 M☉ with a half-mass radius of 11.6 ly, a core radius of 29.2 ly, and a tidal radius of 91.9 ly. The center of the cluster has a luminosity density of 6,460 L☉·pc−3. It is a close neighbor of globular cluster M70, with perhaps only 1,800 light-years separating the two objects.

Messier 70

Messier 70 or M70, also known as NGC 6681, is a globular cluster of stars in the southern constellation of Sagittarius. It was discovered by Charles Messier on 31 August 1780. The famous comet Hale–Bopp was discovered near this cluster 23 July 1995.M70 is at a distance of about 29,400 light years away from Earth and around 6,500 light-years from the Galactic Center. It is roughly the same size and luminosity as its neighbour in space, M69. M70 has a very small core radius of 0.22 ly (0.068 pc) and a half-light radius of 182.0 ly (55.80 pc). This cluster has undergone core collapse, leaving it centrally concentrated with the luminosity distribution following a power law.There are two distinct stellar populations in the cluster, with each displaying unique abundance abundances. These likely represent different generations of stars. Five known variable stars lie within the tidal radius of this cluster, all of which are RR Lyrae variables. The cluster may have two blue stragglers near the core.

Messier 72

Messier 72 (also known as M72 or NGC 6981) is a globular cluster in the Aquarius constellation discovered by French astronomer Pierre Méchain on August 29, 1780. French astronomer Charles Messier looked for it on the following October 4, and included it in his catalog. Both decided that it was a faint nebula rather than a cluster. With a larger instrument, British astronomer John Herschel called it a bright "cluster of stars of a round figure". American astronomer Harlow Shapley noted a similarity to Messier 4 and Messier 12.This cluster is visible as a faint nebula in a telescope with a 6 cm (2.4 in) aperture. the surrounding field stars become visible at 15 cm (5.9 in), while 25 cm (9.8 in) is sufficient to resolve the cluster with an angular diameter of 2.5′. At 30 cm (12 in) the core is resolved in a 1.25′ diameter, showing a broad spread with darker regions to the south and east.Based upon a 2011 census of variable stars, Messier 72 is located at a distance of 54.57 ± 1.17 kly (16.73 ± 0.36 kpc) from the Sun. It has an estimated combined mass equal to 168,000 times the mass of the Sun and is around 9.5 billion years old. The core region has a density of stars that is radiating 2.26 times the luminosity of the Sun per cubic parsec. There are 43 identified variable stars in the cluster.

Messier 75

Messier 75 or M75, also known as NGC 6864, is a globular cluster of stars in the southern constellation Sagittarius. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780 and included in Charles Messier's catalog of comet-like objects that same year.M75 is at a distance of about 67,500 light years away from Earth and is 14,700 light years away from, and on the opposite side of, the Galactic Center. Its apparent size on the sky translates to a true radius of some 67 light years. M75 is classified as class I, meaning it is one of the more densely concentrated globular clusters known. It shows a slow rotation around an axis that is inclined along a position angle of −15°±30°. The absolute magnitude of M75 is about −8.5 or some 180,000 times more luminous than the Sun.The cluster has a half-light radius of 9.1 ly (2.80 pc) with a core radius of about 1.6 ly (0.5 pc) and appears not to have undergone core collapse yet. The mass density at the core is 7.9×104 M☉·pc−3. There are 38 RR Lyrae variable stars and the cluster appears to be Oosterhoff-intermediate in terms of metallicity. 62 candidate blue stragglers have been identified in the cluster field, with 60% being in the core region.Messier 75 is part of the Gaia Sausage, the hypothesized remains of a dwarf galaxy that merged with the Milky Way. It is a halo object with an orbital period of 0.4 Gyr around the galaxy and a large eccentricity of 0.87. The apocenter is 57 kly (17.5 kpc) – close to the current separation.

Messier 79

Messier 79 (also known as M79 or NGC 1904) is a globular cluster in the constellation Lepus. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780 and is at a distance of about 42,000 light years away from Earth and 60,000 light years away from the Galactic Center.

Like Messier 54 (the other extragalactic globular on Messier's list), it is thought that M79 is not native to the Milky Way galaxy at all, but instead to the putative Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, which is currently experiencing a very close encounter with the Milky Way. This is, however, a contentious subject as astronomers are still debating the nature of the Canis Major dwarf galaxy itself.

Messier 9

Messier 9 or M9 (also designated NGC 6333) is a globular cluster in the constellation of Ophiuchus. It is positioned in the southern part of the constellation to the southwest of Eta Ophiuchi, and lies atop a dark cloud of dust designated Barnard 64. The cluster was discovered by French astronomer Charles Messier on June 3, 1764, who described it as a "nebula without stars". In 1783, English astronomer William Herschel was able to use his reflector to resolve individual stars within the cluster. He found the cluster to be 7−8′ in diameter with stars densely packed near the center.M9 has an apparent magnitude of 7.9, an angular size of 9.3′, and can be viewed with a small telescope. It is one of the nearer globular clusters to the center of the Milky Way Galaxy with a separation of around 5,500 light-years from the Galactic Core. Its distance from Earth is 25,800 light-years.

The total luminosity of this cluster is around 120,000 times that of the Sun, the absolute magnitude being -8.04. The brightest individual stars in M9 are of apparent magnitude 13.5, making them visible in moderately sized telescopes. There have been 24 variable stars found in M9: 21 RR Lyrae variables, plus a long-period variable, Type II Cepheid, and an eclipsing binary. No blue stragglers or SX Phoenicis variables have been discovered. Based upon the periods of the RR Lyr variables, this cluster is classified as an Oosterhoff type II globular, which precludes an extra-galactic origin.Nearby, at about 80' to the northeast of M9 is the dimmer globular cluster NGC 6356, while at about 80' to the southeast is the globular NGC 6342.

Visual grouping
See also

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